Nonprofit to run Jack London
JACK LONDON in 1904, pictured writing on a tree stump in his beloved “Beauty Ranch.”
Jack London State Historic Park will officially be under new management on May 1, after the Jack London Park Partners’ proposal got official approval from the state. It marks the very first state park to officially be handed over to a nonprofit organization in California.
“We have reached a milestone in our effort to save this park,” said Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks. “We are pleased the association has stepped forward and we are confident they will do all possible to care for this remarkable historic home during their tenure.”
It was cause for celebration for the Jack London Park Partners, who operate under the umbrella of the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which has been training volunteer docents to work in Sonoma Valley’s three state parks for more than 35 years.
The organization has spent about six months working with the state on its proposal, which included hours spent negotiating all aspects that go into operating a state park, from the insurance for millions of dollars of historic artifacts to preserving the vast ecology of the 1,400-acre site.
“I did make some loud yells and ran around the house,” admitted Elisa Stancil, vice president of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, on learning their proposal had finally been accepted. “What we’re doing is not taking over the park, or saving the park … we’re vowing to continue the traditions of the state park.”
Under the terms of the five-year contract, the Jack London Park Partners will manage the day-to-day operations, including
staffing the park with rangers and docents to work in the museum. Along with the 26 miles of hiking and biking trails, the group is charged with maintaining and preserving the buildings at Beauty Ranch, such as the House of Happy Walls and the old winery ruins.
“We have all of the artifacts we’re now responsible for. There’s just a tremendous amount of work that hasn’t been able to be done,” Stancil said, explaining that the state identified about $3 million in deferred maintenance that it could not afford to complete over the years, such as a 30-year-old leak in the House of Happy Walls, rat damage to the museum’s alarm system and the lake restoration effort.
Stancil said her organization would launch a capitol campaign to raise the funds to tackle those projects.
For raising money to cover the nearly $500,000 annual operating budget, the group is getting creative. Stancil said they are developing a brochure targeting tourists at hotels who can arrange picnics and hikes in the park on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the park will be closed to the general public.
“They’ll be able to experience a private park, all to themselves,” Stancil said.
The group will also begin booking special events, such as weddings, private al fresco dinners and commercial photo shoots.
The Transcendence Theatre Company, which put on the immensely popular “Broadway Under the Stars” performance in the park last fall, will return with four shows and 14 performances set throughout the summer.
“Of their ticket sales, $5 is donated back to us,” Stancil said. See www.transcendencetheatre.org for a schedule and tickets.
They will also be increasing fees to visit the park, and there will be a new $4 charge to visit the museum.
The parking fee, which is currently $8, will increase to $10. And it will actually be collected, with a staff person on duty during the normal operating hours of 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. As it stands today, the park generally doesn’t have a ranger collecting fees and thus a large portion of visitors don’t pay to park.
“That is over. We need to charge for this,” Stancil said, adding that her organization studied parks across the state, country and world when deciding their price structure. “Our prices are quite low compared to many places.”
The Jack London Park Partners also plan to host at least two fundraisers a year. They developed a partnership with neighbor Benziger Family Winery, which has agreed to host two fundraisers a year in support of the park. The first fundraiser takes place Sunday, April 29, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and includes cave tours, live music and a wine raffle. Tickets are $40 at www.jacklondonpark.org.
As is the case now, the park will also rely on a large volunteer effort to stay afloat. Classes to train docents will be held regularly.
The Sonoma Ecology Center will continue to help manage the extensive natural resources.
The nearly $500,000 operating budget includes salaries for several fulltime staff members, including the newly hired executive director Tjiska Van Wyk, along with an operations manager. Van Wyk has more than 25 years of experience in marketing causes around the Bay Area, and has worked with the San Francisco Zoological Society, Sierra Club, American Red Cross and Earthjustice.
“Just like the famous author, we are aiming at creating a new model, a sustainable one that will echo his words: ‘Try to dream with me my dreams of fruitful acres … watch my dream come true,’” Van Wyk said. “The message of this famous writer-become-farmer was: ‘If we redeem the land, it will redeem us!’”
In the face of a large budget deficit last year, the state legislature cut $22 million in funding from the California State Parks, which in turn announced it would be forced to close 70 of the 278 state parks. This included Jack London State Historic Park, Annadel State Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park.
In response, Assemblymember Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, created AB 42, designed to allow “qualified nonprofits or municipal agencies” to take over management of a state park slated for closure. It required an extensive review from the State Department of Parks and Recreation along with approval from the Department of General Services before any contracts could be validated.
The Jack London Park Partners were the first group in the state to get their contract approved. What happens in five years after the contract expires is yet to be determined.
Stancil said her group is remaining flexible, open to the idea of continuing to manage the park indefinitely; or handing management back to the state, ideally once the park is in a strong fiscal position for the future.
“We’re giving ourselves a rainbow array of options,” she said.
To find out more about Jack London State Historic Park, including volunteering opportunities, visit www.jacklondonpark.org.